By Caroline Hockenbury
When Gilbert Lopez and his family opened the original downtown Guadalajara, named after Lopez’s hometown in Mexico, he had only 20 years of life under his belt and a pooled savings of $18,000 in his back pocket. The early years were synonymous with sacrifice, meaning 14-plus-hour shifts and tight circumstances. “My son, my wife—we all lived in one one-bedroom apartment for probably three or four years until we got the restaurant going and could afford…a better [place],” he says.
The Guadalajara founding fathers—Lopez, his wife’s cousin, Juan Ornelas, and his father-in-law, Jesús Arellano—banded together to establish one of only a handful of Mexican eateries in the Charlottesville area on October 10, 1988. The landlord before them had recently folded a restaurant of the same kind. “I don’t think he thought I was going to make it,” Lopez recalls. “He probably saw me as a young kid who didn’t know what he was doing.” Ornelas, in a phone interview, remembers telling his 20-something self to hang tight and keep the faith—to “wait and see what happens.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, Guadalajara is a local chain and a Charlottesville institution. On a mild early autumn afternoon, Lopez is back in the original location off East Market Street, excitedly relaying the details of the restaurant’s forthcoming three-decade celebration.
A cluster of framed awards are arrayed above the hostess station, each a testament to the joint’s influence. A crowd of lunchgoers pressing nearer to their chips and salsa, colorful fajitas, and cheese-sprinkled beans serves as further confirmation that Guad is the place to be.
It didn’t take long for Guadalajara’s name to gain ground, and in the early ’90s a Greenbrier Drive location was added to the map. Branches on Fontaine Avenue and Pantops soon followed. Although upwards of 25 new Mexican places have pushed their way into the area since Guadalajara’s founding, the Mexican eatery has managed to hold on to its place in the city’s heart. “[Increased competition] eats up on the market for everybody,” Lopez acknowledges, “but I feel if I have good service, good food, and a clean restaurant, it won’t bother me.” Lopez says Guadalajara stands out for its authentic dishes, like traditional Mexican mole and enchiladas. His sugar-rimmed jumbo margaritas, too, are a crowd favorite.
The welcoming atmosphere Lopez describes is so pervasive it can actually be anticipated from the parking lot, where mariachi music spills out onto the asphalt. Inside, gleeful guitar riffs pepper the space like piñata confetti.
What’s the best part of this gig? Lopez, time and again, underscores the joy he gleans from serving people. Every so often, he pauses politely in the interview to toss a sincere, “How are you?” to a familiar customer. “They take care of me,” he says, “so I take care of them.”
Ornelas, a frequent presence in the dining room all these years later, agrees. “[I like to] actually serve the customers,” he says.
But for all its warmth and history, the future of the downtown Guadalajara is not clear. “The only sad part about this restaurant is that I never bought the building,” Lopez says. “My mistake.”
In 2016, the city acquired the site of the original Market Street branch and the neighboring Lucky 7 convenience store. When their leases expire, in roughly three years, both businesses may be demolished to make way for a parking garage.
Still, former City Manager Maurice Jones, who stepped down in July, left open the possibility of bringing the businesses back as tenants in a future mixed-use development.
“I’m hoping for that,” says Lopez. We bet the Guad’s downtown regulars are, too.
Guadalajara will celebrate its 30-year anniversary on October 10. The fiesta will span three days, including the Tuesday before and Thursday after the anniversary, and will feature meal discounts and giveaways at each of its four locations.